Comedies can be divided into categories. One of those categories is the ‘transgression comedy’. The IT Crowd is a good example of a transgression comedy. About A Boy is another. Screenwriting experts (including John Truby and Cockeyed Caravan) usually give the example of Tootsie as the perfect example of this form, but I’m no particular fan of that film. It hasn’t aged well.
What is a transgression comedy?
The key to this kind of comedy is that the characters make ridiculous choices and disguise themselves in ridiculous ways. The initial transgression tends to escalate, as the characters commit to bigger and bigger lies. This kind of story is well-suited to socially awkward characters such as Moss and Roy, and to a woman who has bluffed her way into a management position.
Laughter is not an emotion. Joy is an emotion. Laughter is a criticism we hurl at something we find ridiculous or outrageous. It may occur inside any emotion, from terror to love. Nor do we laugh without relief.
– Robert McKee, Story
Structure Of A Transgression Comedy
Discontent: someone is unhappy about something
Transgression with a mask: peculiar to comedy (and, incidentally, to noir thrillers)
Transgression without a mask: midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off
Dealing with consequences
Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story
Growth Without a Mask
“Yesterday’s Jam” Season One, Episode One of The IT Crowd
Jen fakes her way into a job at Reynholm Industries with some phony techno-jargon and a nice-looking resume.
Discontent: Moss and Roy are unhappy that they have a new manager who doesn’t know a thing about computers. Jen is unhappy to be sent down to the basement, because she’s just admired the wonderful view of London from the top floor where she was interviewed.
Transgression with a mask: Roy pretends to be cool (the two of them walk out after realising a woman is in the basement and walk back in with Roy pretending to have been talking about a famous book (with his cover blown by the oblivious Moss immediately.) Jen, the other star of the show, has secured the job by putting ‘computers’ on her CV. She has successfully bullshitted her way into the job by telling the equally clueless CEO that she’s good at sending and receiving emails and double clicking mice.
Transgression without a mask: Roy’s mask is ripped off immediately. Jen’s is gradually ripped off by degrees, first when she doesn’t comment upon a particularly fascinating piece of equipment, next when she pretends to be talking on a phone that isn’t yet connected and then when she’s typing busily on a computer which isn’t plugged in.
Dealing with consequences: At first Jen tries to bullshit her way out of her embarrassment, but they do escalate until she can no longer pretend. Roy marches them all upstairs to tell on her to the CEO, but as it happens, the CEO is busy on the phone firing people who can’t work as a team, so the two of them (gagging Moss) find a new plan: they will pretend that all is hunky dory in the basement so that they can keep their jobs. (A few episodes later Jen says to Roy something like, “Don’t you know how this works yet? First I lie, then I lie, then I lie some more. This is the main comedy source around Jen — she is a veteran liar, even at times lying to herself — about the size of her own feet etc.)
Spiritual Crisis: By the end of the episode she has stormed around the basement saying she knows nothing about computers and she might as well leave now.
Growth Without a Mask: Jen realises the two men in the basement are hopeless with people when a woman comes down to beat Roy up. She realises that as a ‘people person’ she can defuse the biweekly beatings (in this instance by engaging the woman in conversation about her Manolos) and that the three of them can make a good team.
The Work Outing (SE02E01)
When the dashing Philip asks Jen to the theatre she accepts — but so do Moss and Roy — turning what could’ve been a date into a work outing.
Discontent: Moss and Roy aren’t happy about getting themselves into an outing to a very camp gay play. (The play is called GAY.) More specifically, they’re not happy to use the men’s urinals in front of the toilet attendant after just having spent two hours considering gayness during this play.
Transgression with a mask: Bursting to pee, Roy decides to use the disabled loos, after a dressing-down by Moss, who says that ‘it’s illegal’. Roy pulls the emergency chord instead of the chain to flush the toilet, which brings all the theater’s staff to his aid. This leads to Roy pretending to have fallen off the toilet. “I’m disabled!” This leads to a further lie, since his wheelchair is nowhere to be seen: “A man stole it!” Even the police get involved. A wheelchair is found for him, and now he must pretend to be disabled.
Moss gets into his own trouble when he uses the staff toilets.
“Excuse me, those are staff toilets!”
“I am staff!”
“Then get back to work!”
Emerging from the toilets, Moss feels his only way out of his mess is to pretend to actually work there, so he puts on a staff uniform and starts bar-tending.
Transgression without a mask: Roy almost makes a getaway in a van for disabled men, because coincidentally there are tens of disabled gay men from the North down to see the show, and they all get invited backstage for an after party. Roy manages the ruse okay until he sees Jen:
Dealing with consequences: Roy is put into increasingly uncomfortable situations as a fake disabled man, culminating at the point where his picture is taken in a wheelchair for the newspaper.
Spiritual Crisis: The subplot of Jen and Philip mirrors the main plot of Roy and Moss. Philip is obviously gay, but midway through the story he admits that he’s been fooling himself, and was only interested in Jen because she looks ‘like a man’.
Growth Without a Mask: While Philip’s now without his mask of heterosexuality, Moss and Roy never manage to come out of theirs. At the story’s end we see Roy being put back onto the van and that’s when we find out he’s about to end up in Manchester this evening. We wonder how far Roy will go with his mask on when we see that a gay disabled man riding the van is interested in him. Meanwhile, Moss continues bar tending and continues to break stacks of wine glasses. In other words, the spiritual crisis and the growth are given to Philip, with Roy and Moss undergoing no real character change at all. They’ll be back to their deceptive old selves in many subsequent episodes.
Are We Not Men? (SE03E02)
A new football website allows Roy and Moss to pass as “proper” men for a momentous couple of days.
Discontent: Moss and Roy are unhappy that they don’t fit in with their perception of a ‘real man’. It has already been set up in a previous episode that the two of them see to much of each other and they are trying to expand their social network.
Transgression with a mask: Moss finds a website which tells him what to say to football fans. The website is updated daily and even offers a pronunciation guide. He successfully uses this website to talk to the post guy at work, but then Roy gets a hold of it and takes it to the pub where he gets them both involved with a bunch of ‘real men’ by using just a few stock football phrases.
Transgression without a mask: When Roy unwittingly ends up driving the getaway vehicle as his new real-man friends rob a bank, he starts sobbing inside the getaway truck.
Dealing with consequences: Roy has a verbal altercation with the criminals during which time Moss turns up and inadvertently lets on that Roy had called the police, not knowing at the time that he was implicated.
Spiritual Crisis: I wouldn’t call it a ‘spiritual crisis’ but as the police cars drive past them in the alley way, Moss kisses Roy passionately against the wall, in a spoof of heist movies in which the male and female lead characters gladly take the opportunity. Roy is left stunned by this event. A policeman yells ‘Homos!’ out of his window, and we understand that Roy has felt something during this kiss, which leads to Roy’s revelation that he’ll never be a real ‘real man’.
Growth Without a Mask: When the post guy comes down and makes a comment to Moss about football, Moss tells him to shut up. He’s done with pretending to be knowledgeable about football.
The really masterful thing about this episode is that the subplot of Jen and Michael The Magician mirrors the main plot. After Moss and Roy point out that her new boyfriend looks like a magician, Jen can’t get it out of her head. When she tries to break up with Michael, Michael is devastated and comes up with a transgression comedy of his own: If he actually becomes a magician, Jen won’t mind that he looks like one. The comedy comes from the facts that 1. the actor who plays Michael really does look like a magician and 2. he turns out to be terribly unsuited to magic tricks and Jen dumps him anyway. (In the story he is actually a driving instructor.)
The theme line of this episode then is a rather serious one: Don’t try to be what you are not. The only authentic self comes from within.
Those aren’t the only episodes of The IT Crowd which make use of the transgression comedy structure. There’s Fifty-Fifty, in which Jen’s flirtation with a company security guard gets a little out of hand when he mistakes her pretend knowledge for the real thing. Her cover is blown when he calls her from a quiz show and she gets the answer wrong.
In The Haunting Of Bill Crouse Moss gets Jen into trouble by telling everyone at the company that she is dead, all because she doesn’t want to talk to the loutish Bill Crouse after a disastrous date.
In The Dinner Party, Moss, Roy and Richmond ‘pretend to be normal’. When they are outed for being the awkward nerds that they are, results vary: Richmond gets a girlfriend out of it, Roy offends a maimed model who turns out to love the same things he does, and the two of them inadvertently start behaving like an old married couple.
Throughout the series there are other scene-level transgressions, such as where Jen is caught spying on her ‘builder from hell’ while he’s in the toilet, and then she has to pretend she always walks around her apartment on her knees. The same sort of gag is used in the the pilot episode of Black Books, when Manny is caught making a face behind his boss’s back, then pretends that his face always looks like that.
Jen is often pretending to like a guy until she can find an opportunity to get rid of him.